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Revising Philosophy: Scholasticism

Revising Philosophy: Scholasticism


The Scholastic Method. In the Roman Empire, philosophy became a part of the liberal arts taught in the Roman schools. This tradition of teaching and debating philosophy continued in the Latin West. Scholasticism is the name given to the “School Philosophy” of the Middle Ages. It is not the name for a particular doctrine. The Scholastics—philosophers such as Peter Abelard, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, Henry of Ghent, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham—did not hold the same philosophical or theological views. They exhibited great originality in constructing their positions, and they were not afraid to disagree with one another. What they did share was a method of examining a variety of doctrinal positions in a thorough, logical manner. In fact, the word Scholasticism denotes a common style of “doing philosophy and theology.” Peter Abelard helped to develop this new methodology in his Sic et Non (Yes and No, written circa 1112–1128), a collection of opposing or conflicting statements that set out a method by which opposing claims can be harmonized or correctly synthesized. It also provided the student with much material for logical exercises. This scholastic method of “pro and contra” (question and answer) had great strength in uncovering logical ambiguities in arguments. Hence, for the Scholastics the logical form of an argument, as distinct from its grammatical form, was all important.

Scholastic Style. In general the works that grew out of thesc practices tend to be stylistically impersonal, with only infrequent personal remarks and references. Comments such as “Some say” or “Others state” indicate that these thinkers were more interested in getting at the “content” or the “theses” of the respective thinkers than engaging in an ad hominem argument (an attack on an opponent’s character rather than his ideas). This style had its rhetorical peculiarities: the vocabulary was limited; abstract formulas were abundant; and the structures of arguments tended to be rigid. Scholastic discourse also relied heavily, but not exclusively, on syllogistic argument. In the writings of the Church Fathers, who preceded the Scholastics, and the Renaissance Humanists, who came after, one finds a greater variety of styles, less-rigid formats, and more diverse rhetoric than in the works of these medieval scholars.

Scholasticism and Teaching. The scholastic style was also greatly influenced by the methodology of university teaching. The format consisted mostly of lecture, disputation, and “collation” (conference). The lecture (lectio, or reading) consisted of the reading of prescribed texts. This reading was often helped by reference to an official commentator; for example, Aristotle’s texts were read with the aid of Averroës’ commentary. The master, as the teacher was called, was also expected to go beyond ordinary explication of the text and provide interpretation through his own commentary. The “scholastic method” of pro and contra was applied to all fields, including theology, philosophy, medicine, and law. In each field the teacher started from an “authoritative” text, for example, the Bible with Sententiarum libri IV (Four Books of Sentences (written 1148–1151), Peter Lombard’s collection of scriptural texts and commentary by the Church Fathers and medieval masters in theology, and Aristotle with Averroes’ commentary in philosophy.

Disputation. Masters were expected to engage in regular disputations (disputatio). The medieval format for disputation was twofold: first, the regular or ordinary disputation held throughout the school year, second, the solemn disputation usually held before Christmas or Easter. In the latter, called the “Quadlibetal” (Free-for-AU) disputation, the master was expected to discuss any issues or questions asked by the audience. Part of the training of a scholastic master consisted in the teaching of debating skills. Young students were expected to prove their verbal-conceptual skills by taking positive and negative sides on important issues. The master served as “debate master” and was expected to sum up the debates and give a resolution. The examination for mastership (like a modern doctorate) provided a format in which a would-be master publicly exhibited his skills in formal debate.

The Quaestio. Perhaps, the most important invention of the Scholastics was the form known as the quaestio (question). This form is broader than the modern usage of the word question. In the quaestio one usually set out the strongest objections to the position that one intended to defend. One then proceeded to give a formal presentation of the main arguments for one’s own position and concluded by answering the initial objections. This format is still preferred in many modern philosophy journals, indicating the continuity of the scholastic method in contemporary practice. A questio could develop into a lengthy account. For example, Thomas Aquinas’s Questio Disputatae deAnima (Disputed Questions on the Soul, written 1269) consists of quite lengthy quaestios.

Commentary and Summa. The other important scholastic literary forms were the commentary and summa. The commentary might be a literal reading of a difficult text, such as Thomas Aquinas’s In Libros De Anima (written 1265-1273), a major commentary on Aristotle’s De anima (On the Soul). The aim of the work was to enable the student to read and understand fully the text of Aristotle. Initially, in the twelfth century the word summa meant a completed selection or gathering of theological and philosophical sentences, but by the thirteenth century it meant a literary work that gives a concise presentation of a whole field of study in a synthetic manner suitable for teaching students.


Frederick C. CoyXtston, Medieval Philosophy (London: Methuen, 1952).

Norman Kretzmann, Anthony Kenny, Jan Pinborg, and Eleonore Stump, eds., The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge, U.K. & New York Cambridge University Press, 1982).

Armand A. Maurer, Medieval Philosophy, revised edition (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1982).

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